India’s notable military ‘victory’ over the Pakistan army in what was East Pakistan in 1971- fifty years ago – was achieved for the following reasons: for one, the Pakistan army was ill-equipped and ill-prepared, as a consequence of wrong strategic calculation by the generals in Rawalpindi, who felt that as Pakistan could bring to bear overwhelming military forces on India’s western front, an Indian military response in the east would be limited or negligible, as was the case in 1965. Thus, the Pakistan army that eventually surrendered with 81,000 soldiers—the others were just civilian camp followers—had three overstretched divisions against India’s three army corps – to face the blitzkrieg of the Indian army in East Pakistan. Pakistan had only enough troop levels – which were also increased in March 1971- not to fight a war, but inflict a genocide on the Bengali population in the east! And finally, equal credit for the success of the India Army in the operations must be attributed to IAF’s air domination over East Pakistan and the Indian Navy’s blockade of its coastline.
The genocide unleashed by the Pakistan army in East Pakistan, to subdue the locals with fear, had burdened India, by the end of May 1971, with 10 million Bengali refugees. It also gave rise to guerrilla forces—the Mukti Bahini guerrillas, that were most useful for India’s advance to Dacca, but the capture of Dacca was not India’s aim. It was to liberate parts of East Pakistan to give safe areas for the refugees to go back, and to announce a free Bangladesh. But even then, India’s military commanders suggested a more calibrated approach. General SHFJ (Sam) Manekshaw, the Indian Army Chief – who after conferring with the other Service Chiefs, Admiral SM Nanda and Air Chief Marshal PC Lal, and after much deliberation at the Military Operations (MO) Directorate, cautioned against haste.
Indian military operations with attacks along the borders of East Pakistan, had in fact started in November 1971 itself. The battles of Garibpur on 20 – 21 November, and the pitched battles around Hilli (or Bogura), began on 22nd November. A few leading observers – R. Sisson and L.E. Rose had stated that while earlier on, “India’s forces did hit objectives in East Pakistan and then withdrew back into Indian territory, after the night of 21st November 1971, Indian tactics changed in a significant way.” Prior to that, the Mukti Bahini and other Bengali guerrilla groups trained by India, were carrying out hit and run operations, while the IAF had begun to carry out aerial reconnaissance missions in October and November 1971.
And when the war officially started, after Pakistan’s air force bombed several Indian air bases in the north and west of India on the night of 3rd/4th December, the Indian navy responded with the bombing of Karachi harbour on 4th December 1971. It had a significant impact on Pakistan’s maritime capability. And even as Pakistan chose to launch its mechanised combat groups towards Jaisalmer, the legendary defence put up by India’s ground and air forces at Longewala (on 4th / 5th December), created a graveyard of Pakistani tanks, which is still there to see. Thus, initially much of the attention was on India’s western front.
The war in East Pakistan essentially gathered momentum after the Indian Army undertook the bold operations to cross the mighty Meghna river and with the first heliborne and airborne operations (between 9th and 11th December). And the fall of Dacca – the crowning moment of the war – had come about due to the remarkable synergy between India’s three services. That war was the finest example of inter-service cooperation, and much credit must also go to the naval chief, Admiral Nanda who had the foresight to move India’s only aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant to the Bay of Bengal – despite resistance from naval brass hats – and Air Chief Marshal PC Lal who had set up an advance air HQ in Calcutta to coordinate the efforts of the two air commands in the eastern sector.